.Rising Voices

Diversity is the keynote at TEDx Santa Cruz

Donnie Veal remembers the first time he gave a public speech. He had signed up for a public speaking class through Hartnell College in Salinas. He wasn’t on campus, however—he was an inmate at Salinas Valley State Prison.

Now, after spending 23 years in the California prison system and obtaining a sociology degree from UC Santa Cruz, Veal will take the stage at this year’s TEDx Santa Cruz event at Cabrillo College.

He’s found his voice in helping others understand the detrimental effects of incarceration within a dehumanizing prison system and what it takes to keep the formerly incarcerated from going back. Ever since he first researched the topic in his speaking class, he has continued to advocate for ways to curb recidivism.

Veal says he had to “find some different topics and things I had to give speeches about, and one of those topics that I researched—which I talk about in my TEDx talk—is recidivism. I wanted to learn about recidivism because I wanted to learn the game on how not to go back [to prison].”

Now the program coordinator of the Rising Scholars program at Cabrillo College, Veal is one of more than 20 speakers participating in the highly anticipated TEDx Santa Cruz event on April 13. Veal’s talk will highlight the role of education in lowering recidivism rates for formerly incarcerated individuals.

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“If we’re concerned about the safety and security of our society and we see the … transformative power education has on people, why isn’t that the antidote?” Veal asks.

After graduating from UCSC in 2023, he helped found Rising Scholars at Cabrillo the same year. The program is part of a statewide network that helps thousands of formerly incarcerated students with resources and tools to navigate life on college campuses. Currently, more than 80 students are enrolled locally.

Veal’s life story and the work he has embarked on encapsulate the theme of this year’s TEDx Santa Cruz event: “Rising Together.” After taking a nearly five-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the affair will celebrate the resilience of the Santa Cruz County community.

Collaborating Together

The theme “Rising Together” addresses challenges such as poverty, racism, global climate change, food insecurity and divisiveness, according to its organizers.The emphasis of the event will be on the need for “massive collaboration” to solve these challenges.

The theme for the event was born out of the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County’s Rise Together initiative. The foundation is the presenting sponsor for the event. The initiative was founded in 2020 in response to police brutality and the inequities highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic response. The foundation brought together 17 leaders from diverse backgrounds to support their work in advancing racial equity. Rise Together includes community organizers, educators, social justice leaders, immigrant advocates and various professionals.

Susan True, CEO of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, says Rise Together was organized as a response to the community’s desire to feel more connected and understand better some of the ideas leaders were proposing.

“I do think this is kind of a post-Covid [19] craving to meet new people; to understand their ideas; to understand how we can connect ideas and efforts together to create a more resilient community. Our community has been through so much with Covid, fires, floods and the [Pajaro] levee break,” True says. “There’s an incredible desire to increase equity in our community, to make this a more just community.”

The April 13 program spans a wide range of topics. Local journalists, tech entrepreneurs, poets, historians, educators and nonprofit leaders will share their vision for addressing the issues brought forth by the community.

For some speakers, finding their own voice means giving life to the narratives of people who, despite their foundational role in the community, have been forgotten.

Buried History

Luna Highjohn-Bey first came to Santa Cruz on a Vespa over a decade ago, enticed by tales of one of the last hippie towns. What she came to discover was a buried history of the Black roots of the area.

A native of Washington, D.C. and graduate of the New School in New York, Highjohn-Bey found herself embarking on a historical journey almost by accident in 2020 after speaking at a Juneteenth event at the then- Louden Nelson Community Center. It was there that she learned about the untold history of Black Santa Cruzans.

“They were like, ‘Do you know that Louden Nelson’s real name is London Nelson? Do you know he was a Black man?’” Highjohn-Bey recalls.

After diving into historical records, she and others formed a renaming committee that brought their case to the Santa Cruz City Council. The center is now correctly named the London Nelson Community Center, and the lives of unnamed individuals buried with Nelson at Evergreen Cemetery are also being recompiled. In a town that Highjohn-Bey says does not reflect much Black history, uncovering it is important work.

“It’s exciting to hear that there’s always been Black people here in Santa Cruz. That it’s not a recent thing. Because that’s how a lot of people here feel,” she says. Now, Highjohn-Bey is lead researcher for the London Nelson Legacy Initiative, which seeks to archive the history of the Black pioneers of Santa Cruz who helped shape the town in its early days.

Based on her experience, Highjohn-Bey’s talk for Rising Together will focus on the value of community-led initiatives and to dispel notions that endeavors like her initiative can only exist within academia.

“Community healing necessitates community truth and if we want to rise together as a community it needs to happen in the light of truth,” she says.

Finding a personal truth and sharing that journey with others can also build a stronger community. For a local young poet, that journey is transformative in many ways.

From Boy to Woman

Madeline Aliah commandeered an audience from an early age. She remembers demanding to be heard even as a toddler.

“I was a very boisterous and talkative child who turned any group of people I encountered into an audience, even if they had assembled to discuss something [else],” Aliah recalls.

Years later, as a teenager, Aliah would redefine her voice as she transitioned into her truer self and used poetry as an outlet. While initially writing for herself, she discovered that her work resonated with others as well.

“I realized … I can write anything and I can show it to people and they might just take an interest,” Aliah says.

Now, Aliah has just published This Is My Body, a chapbook of poetry documenting her journey as a transgender woman.

“The concept of having a book out always circulated around in my brain, but at first, it was almost like a guilty pleasure,” Aliah says.

She likens the arc of her chapbook to a hero’s journey and says that while her experience as a trans teenager will outwardly speak to those in similar situations, it can also help others who are not trans understand it as well.

“It’s talking about the trans journey, but unfortunately people who are on that journey often know as little as people who aren’t on that journey,” she says.

Aliah is not only an author but also an activist. She is part of the Santa Cruz Queer Trans Youth Council, advocating for inclusivity and addressing educators on the need to foster a diverse school culture.

For her TEDx talk, Aliah focuses on those issues and on how to reach people who are struggling with gender identity but are too afraid or don’t know how to ask for help.

“It’s about how people who need help the most—specifically referring to gender diverse information and accessibility—usually aren’t the people who are being open about it because most of the time people who need help are the people who aren’t safe enough to reach out and ask for it,” Aliah says.

Aliah is excited to share her experience and the stage with the other speakers on April 13, many of whom she admires.

“I’m a little starstruck by all these splendid people,” she says. “It feels like it’s an honor to just be able to talk and be associated with these people. But to actually be able to work alongside them and be in something like this together is so exciting.”


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